This article contains admiration of explicit old-fashioned survival horror.
The setting is now a cliché, no? Abandoned mansions, towns cloaked in a dense fog and rural villages under the influence of an abominable cult – we know these settings well and take them for granted in today’s market of ‘over the shoulder horror’ pumped to the eye sockets with sprinting zombies and a Schwarzeneggeresque bias towards action. That is why, as millions tore off the cellophane wrapped packaging of Resident Evil 6 with itchy trigger fingers, I rejected the current crop of action horror and instead blew the dust off my old copy of the Resident Evil REmake, dimmed the lights in my bedroom and returned to the Spencer Mansion, one of the genre’s beautiful clichés.
You may be pausing for thought wondering why I chose to crack open the REmake rather than revisit the original. The answer is simple. The REmake took something, which was a good idea, unfortunately, mired with poor voice acting, (“Stop it! Don’t open that door!” Anyone?) and gave it a proper polish. The final result was a game with superb graphics for the time with a single purpose, to scare you silly. I remember my heart pounding as the tortured figure of Lisa Trevor appeared for the first time. This seemingly invulnerable monster is possibly one of the game’s finest characters and is truly a sight to bear rather than behold. As a character she is also reminiscent of Silent Hill 2’s also seemingly invulnerable Pyramid Head who haunts the game’s main character, James Sunderland, as he stumbles around Silent Hill, a lakeside town in America as well as the gruesome Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 who seemed to appear at the worst of times and came back again and again even when you thought it was dead. Alone these three characters (or monsters if you will) have more depth than any of the characters from today’s action horror games such as Left 4 Dead where no monster stayed with me once I completed the game, unlike the classics.
Another charm of the survival horror genre was that it knew its place; it knew what would terrify you, as you sat in your bedroom controller in hand. Abandoned towns, mansions and villages infested with ghosts, shuffling zombies and twisted mannequins were the chosen settings of yesteryear. Today we run and gun C-virus mutants in neon drenched cities. Undoubtedly the most striking and beautiful example of an abandoned setting is the lost village in Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (aka Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly to our American cousins). The village is reminiscent of an 18th century rural Japanese village: with family crests on nearly every lock and kimono clad ghosts waiting in the rafters. The lost village is dripping with personality and rivals Silent Hill in terms of location. The village, like the town of Silent Hill, is as much a part of the story as twins Mayu and Miyu, the two main characters of the game, and almost by itself warrants another play-through upon completion.
Cults were not overtly common in the survival horror genre, but some of the games which made it out from Japan had some form of cult or ritual imbedded somewhere into their plot lines. For example, Project Zero, a little gem of a game by the name Forbidden Siren, made use of the occult and bizarre rituals to progress the plot further. Unlike series such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Project Zero (yes, there are more great examples, but how long do you want this article to be?), Forbidden Siren, received mixed reviews from critics and never got the sales figures it deserved. This is possibly in part due to the soul crushing difficulty and realism of the game where characters may survive a gunshot or two, but never three. This hard-line approach turned many gamers off. They did not want to have to struggle through a game and take their time, sometimes with no weapons. Instead preferring to be heavily armed and endowed with generous amounts of health those gamers would get their wish two years later with the release of Resident Evil 4.
While Resident Evil 4 gave a breath of fresh air to the genre, as it did away with sometimes-awkward camera angles and scarce ammo, it was Forbidden Siren, which took a more bold decision in response to the climate of then current survival horror and gave you the ability to see through the eyes of the enemy. This ability called sightjacking was an incredible tool if used correctly. It could help you locate enemies, see important plot items and plan routes in order to avoid the shibito, the games possessed monsters. Surprisingly, this ability did not detract from the horror, but in fact helped add to it, carefully plotting your movements was crucial and failure meant not only being seen, but probable death as a result. Giving the player more power without detracting from the horror aspect of the game was a fine achievement and was a feat not repeated by Resident Evil 4, which gave the player the ability to buy weapons and upgrade them to the point of ridiculous.
Horror games to me are creaking floorboards, psychological terror and a terrifying score such as the ones in the Silent Hill and Project Zero series. Unfortunately, today many of these series have fallen to the temptations of the market. Games like Silent Hill 5 and Resident Evil 6 at times tried to scare you, but the damage was already done. The step has been made and the classic survival horror may have had its day. Some may be glad of this, I mean after all we don’t have to follow the formula of start -locked door-find key-open door-beat boss-locked door-find key-open door-beat final boss-end and no longer do we have to suffer the clunky controls of Silent Hill 2 with its horrendous fighting system and dodgy camera angles, but that was what was charming about the genre. The aim was not to empower the player and, whether intentionally or not, they succeeded in scaring you as you tried to shoot an enemy, while frantically trying to aim your gun in the right direction.
So as Halloween dawns and my friends unload thousands of bullets into hordes of zombies in Resident Evil 6, I will return to the Spencer Mansion and walk slowly down the dusty hallways hoping that noise around the corner was only the sound of the wind against the widows.
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This article was first posted on October 29, 2012